The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday created a new sheriff’s civilian oversight commission and appointed its nine members, moves aimed at restoring trust in a department racked by years of scandal over abuses in county jails.
Commissioners will review and make policy recommendations, act as a liaison between residents and the sheriff and obtain feedback on use-of-force incidents, according to the ordinance creating the body. It will also investigate “systemic Sheriff-related issues or complaints affecting the community” through an office of inspector general.
Under a memorandum of agreement with the Sheriff’s Department, Inspector General Max Huntsman has access to personnel records and documents from pending investigations. However, he and his staff aren’t allowed to take copies of those documents, and they can view them only on the premises of the Sheriff’s Department. Huntsman said the department has so far allowed him all the access he’s required.
Brian Williams, the commission’s executive director, said the commission’s work will focus mainly on the Sheriff Department’s policies. It will not be involved in disciplinary actions against officers, he said. Among the issues the commission can review are inspector general’s reports, such as a recent one in which the watchdog found that violence within jails is rising, he said.
At a morning news conference before the Board of Supervisors meeting, county leaders declared that they were making history. Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said that “in its own way,” the formation of the commission was “unprecedented.” And Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said it was “no small thing to regularly revisit the notion of restoring public trust.”
Activists have long clamored for independent civilian oversight of the Sheriff’s Department. They offered mixed reactions to the creation of the commission, offering praise for having a civilian oversight body of any kind but also criticizing its lack of subpoena and disciplinary powers.
They also denounced a decision not to include Black Lives Matter activist Patrisse Cullors on the commission while appointing law enforcement representatives. Her exclusion “raises serious concerns about whether this commission will protect incarcerated Brown and Black people, which is what Patrisse and the community urgently fought for,” Mark-Anthony Johnson, director of wellness at Dignity and Power Now, said in a news release.
Each member of the commission, which is supposed to meet once a month, is appointed by the supervisors, raising questions among critics about the body’s independence. This first group of commissioners will serve either a one-, two- or three-year term, and commissioners appointed afterward will serve three-year terms. Commissioners are allowed two “full consecutive” terms each.
The appointed commissioners include former Deputy Dist. Atty. Leal Rubin; Loyola Law School Associate Professor Priscilla Ocen; Rabbi Heather Miller; Sean Kennedy, executive director of Loyola Law School’s Center for Juvenile Law and Policy and a former federal public defender; former U.S. Atty. and DEA Administrator Robert Bonner; former Sheriff’s Lt. JP Harris; Patti Giggans, executive director of Peace Over Violence; Southern Saint Paul Church Senior Pastor Xavier Thompson; and Hernan Vera, former president and CEO of Public Counsel.
Huntsman described them as a group of people who are “experts in not being ignored.”
As the vote to create the commission was about to commence, Kuehl walked over to the commissioners seated in the audience and thanked them. She also offered a warning.
“You don’t know what you’re getting yourselves into,” she told them.